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Seemingly Modest New Renters' Rights Law Represents Major Victory and Significant Tactical Shift for Sawant

By taking an iterative approach, Sawant may have her biggest impact yet.

By Josh Feit June 7, 2016

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The city council unanimously passed legislation sponsored by council member Kshama Sawant (and former city council member Nick Licata) yesterday that prohibits landlords from raising rents in any building that has code violations. Sawant dubbed the bill the “Carl Haglund” law in reference to the infamous landlord who raised rents on a dilapidated and unfit building in Southeast Seattle that had 225 code violations.

“It is mind boggling that we are even here talking about such a law that should already be in place protecting tenants from such a thing,” one woman, a Somalian community organizer, testified in support of the bill.

“As a child back home in Somalia, I used to hear a name that almost rhymes with landlord, which is warlord. So, I ask, ‘What do they have in common?’… They both mistreat the people that they are supposed to be protecting.”

Landlords have argued that they need to increase rents to make the necessary fixes.

Council member Lisa Herbold, Licata’s former longtime aide (and before that, a tenants’ rights organizer), responded to that argument from the council dais yesterday, saying: “Today the council’s going to reject that idea…the reliance on rent increases in order to finance basic life safety repairs is completely unfair.”

In fact, Herbold reframed that debate by pointing out that current law actually says tenants are entitled to a refund when they’re living in a building that isn’t up to code. “If we do end up in a dispute in the courtroom” Herbold said, referring to another claim from landlords (that the legislation violates the state ban on rent control), “our response needs to be to take this issue even further…there is a part of the law that exists today, that says you are entitled to a refund of your rent—not a rent increase. This measure that’s before us right now, is a very small thing…to keep a landlord from raising the rent in the case of life safety violations…tenants are already entitled to a reduction. Perhaps we might need to look at beginning to enforce that requirement.”

Sawant also viewed the legislation as a first step. She used yesterday’s hearing as a stage to announce her next bill (part of what she’s calling a “tenants’ bill of rights”) to put a cap on move-in fees.

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“I have a draft of the next bill of the tenants’ bill of rights here with me,” Sawant said, holding up sheet of paper. “This is one bill that my office will come out with this summer. And this bill will cap move-in fees.” The legislation would limit the non-refundable fees that landlords can charge; the bill would also require landlords to offer a payment plan for move-in fees and also for last-month’s rent. “Paying the cost of moving in can be the biggest barrier to finding housing,” Sawant said, citing a poll of renters conducted by the Washington Community Action Network and also citing data in the survey that showed that first month’s/last month’s /security deposit triple combo can cost more than $4,000. “This can be totally unaffordable,” Sawant said.

Sawant’s iterative approach is a significant (and smart) shift away from her traditional MO to make sweeping demands. Similar to the successful fight for gay marriage in Washington state where advocates first pushed for gay rights and domestic partnerships before calling outright for marriage equality, a piecemeal approach can have the winning effect of revealing point by point how unjust the larger legal frame may be.

In this instance, by showing how absurd it is that landlords could actually raise rents on faulty apartments, Sawant’s modest reform to change that insult (the council passed the bill unanimously) nudges the general public toward the recognition that there’s something out of whack with the larger, current system.

And if landlords challenge this incremental step in court by making the larger claim that it violates the ban on rent control, they could, unwittingly, play right into Sawant’s hands.

Sawant flagged her long game yesterday: “When I debated the Rental Housing Association recently on a televised interview about the Carl Haglund law,” she said, “they clearly threatened to sue the city. They claimed it was rent control. … There is a point in what the Rental Housing Association folks are saying. The point is, we need the ban on rent control to be repealed.”

 In a sign that more mainstream people will be drawn in by Sawant’s new approach, a representative from Capitol Hill Housing’s “Renters’ Initiative,” testified along with the parade of Socialist Alternative members. The Renters Initiative is CHH’s organizing effort to plug renters into city neighborhood policy debates as a way to address the disproportionate say that homeowners have.

As opposed to the fiery rhetoric from most of the people who testified about “slumlord profits” and “corporate landlords,” and “profiteering on the unchecked neoliberal market” (#Rentpower), the representative from the Renters’ Initiative noted that there are 249 units in nine buildings—“and that’s just in Capitol Hill”— that would be helped by the “Carl Haglund Law”  concluding simply the law would be “an effective and important tool to give renters more control over their future.”   

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